The term motherhood, or mother, holds so many connotations, views, memories and experiences. Indeed, the whole concept of motherhood can be a personal one. So, I suppose I should stress now that the words that I will hereon write will be own and not meant to offend or cast sweeping statements.
The role of the mother has varied across time, culture, and social class. Historically, the role of women was confined to some extent to be a mother and wife. It was often expected that a woman would dedicate most of their energy to these roles, and to spend most of their time taking care of the home. In many cultures, women received significant help in performing these tasks from older female relatives, such as mothers in law or their own mothers.
It is easy to say that our knowledge and expectations come from our experiences and whilst I write this I can think of a series of example that are directly associated with myself.
I remember my grandmother (Joan) on my mother’s side (my paternal grandmother had died before I was born) holding very simplistic ideas and explanations. I am not saying she was educationally disadvantaged but she was certainly a product of an early to mid-twentieth century working class girl.
Apron (and sometimes rollers)
I always knew that if she was not wearing her flowery apron it usually meant that we were heading to a ‘posh’ outing that included her drinking copious amounts of babysham or snowballs. A variant came when she discovered the coconut delights of Malibu with coke. Yet, my adopted father’s mother (who was middle class) would never have been seen wearing such a garment or attending such functions
Joan’s life had been measured by the deep and heavy lines on her face and the toll of having eight children. it must have had an impact upon her body. In fact, from my earliest memories of her she had always appeared old before her years. Compared to women today of a similar age.
I had never really talked to her much about her younger life but I was later informed that there was some sort of ‘difficulty’ of which was never fully explained to my satisfaction.
I am fully aware, however, that her working class, inner city upbringing during the early twentieth century had been hard, rough and unforgiving. As a result, it was of no surprise that she married a man of equal social background and, I must confess, a tendency to use violence as a form of household control.
With violence being the main currency of control, the burden of eight children, poverty and social expectations divorce was not an option. So I consider that many of the children were exposed to emotional and physical violence at a rate that would not be expected or tolerated today.
Like mother… like daughter
As I have previously stated my experiences with my mother were far from positive and I think the relationship with her was often tempered by the kindness of my adopted father. I am not making an excuse for her, but my experiences of motherhood did not reflect that of what was expected. I find it ironic that even during the 1970s and 1980s motherhood was seen as being loving, warm and protecting yet it was the complete opposite in my own home. Love, warmth and protection did not spout from her or her arms – it was found within my adopted father. Yet, she found it impossible, even many years later, that as a mother she had failed where others had succeeded. In her view she was a mother and that was her occupation as opposed to privilege or duty.
If I could have had the choice I would rather have been bought up by my father than my mother. All the expectations associated with how a mother should behave was found in my father and poignantly, not my mother. Yet social constructs and expectations forbade him to stay at home and for his wife to earn the family income.
History records many conflicts between mothers and their children. Some even resulted in murder, such as the conflict between Cleopatra III of Egypt and her son Ptolemy X.
In modern cultures, matricide (the killing of one’s mother) and filicide (the killing of one’s son or daughter) have been studied but remain poorly understood. Psychosis and schizophrenia are common causes of both, but I have a strong objection to associating mental health with crimes of such a nature – it all seems too convenient. Financially poor mothers with a history of domestic abuse are slightly more likely to commit filicide than those of whom didn’t. And mothers are more likely to commit filicide than fathers when the child is 8 years old or younger (Greenfeld, Lawrence A., Snell, Tracy L. (1999-02-12, updated 2000-03-10). “Women Offenders”. NCJ 175688. US Department of Justice).
The role of motherhood in mainly western countries had developed with the successes of ‘the women’s liberation movements’. These developments reflected the collective pressure of frustration that had been imposed upon womanhood for centuries. It was only after the importance that women showed during the two world wars that a loud chorus of demand for equal rights gained a revolutionary status.
When I consider the eventual positions of my adopted father, his father and his father in law, they must have both been taken aback by the bitterness and animosity shown towards men and fatherhood. I consider that my grandfathers (more than my father) would not have previously realised that their inherited presumptions and dispositions had become so offensive.
They must have taken for granted the gender roles imposed upon them from the generation before them. But to have the entire blame for inequality and suppression laid at their feet must have been either bemusing or at worst offensive. I think it would have been fair to consider that many men and fathers would not have thought themselves to have been intentionally exploitative but to have carried out the responsibilities placed upon them by society as a whole.
I think that because of the bewilderment of the accusations made against them, men had really said very little about what was going on. Certainly, even today, any media coverage given to this topic is far outweighed by the amount given to women having their say. As a point of note, there has been no sign of a collective male counter demand of equality on fatherhood yet fathers seek equality in the family courts – and don’t get it.
The science of a hunch
The rise of science has also ignored the concept of fatherhood over motherhood. One of the main reasons for this neglect of fathers lies in early psychological theories of parenthood. Theories are ‘hunches’ and so are always under scrutiny but can also constrain us and lead us away from examining some problems in favour of others. The scientific problem was that fathers were not just forgotten but were ignored because it was assumed that they were less important than mothers in influencing the developing child. Hence the dominant theories at the time corresponded with the traditional conception of the family and the gender roles played.
One of Freud’s important notions was the concept of different gratifications associated with different body zones. For example, Freud thought that the mouth was associated with eating, sucking, biting and swallowing of which is a basic requirement of a new born. And as it was the role (and biological framework) of the mother to feed the infant, Freud gave the primary role of child rearing to the mother. Freud considered that a father’s role at this early stage was irrelevant and as a result divorced the role of fatherhood from this crucial period in a child’s life.
John Bowlby’s view of early childhood differed from Freud’s but the end result was the same – father’s were secondary and only played a supporting role to the mother. Yet it is well known that Bowlby’s views were flawed as it played a primary role of returning the mother to the home to make way for returning soldiers to gain employment after the war.
Yet, it would be a mistake to conclude that there is anything biologically necessary about maternal caretaking. In some cultures, males and females divide the care of their young equally. Among the Trobrianders of Melanesia, for example, the father participates actively in the care, feeding and transporting of their young. Similarly, the Taira of Okinawa, the Pygmies of Africa and the Ilocos of the Philippines equally share the child care between parents. Would it not be fair, therefore, to suggest that the roles played by mothers and fathers are not biologically fixed. Instead the definition of gender roles can vary depending upon the social, ideological and physical conditions imposed in different cultures?
Even within animal cultures the father plays an important role within the early stages of childhood. It has been found that Marmosets and Tamarins (monkeys from central and South America) are equally involved. They not only carry their infants during the day for the first few months of life, but often chew food for the very young and sometimes assist during the birth. This is also evident amongst the Barbary macaques of Asia and Africa and rhesus monkeys when given the opportunity.
There is no definitive evidence to support any gender claim of superiority within any occupational role. For our forefathers they could claim exceptions in the military or where muscle power was a pre-requisite. However, these claims are now eroded with the developments of technology that have levelled the work force horizons. Yet fathers can not seek equality in the home with regards to child rearing.
In theory, therefore, if men can and have abandoned the centuries held beliefs of gender roles there is no good reason why women cannot welcome the progressive, even revolutionary concept of men playing the loving, caring and nurturing role associated with womanhood/motherhood.
Traditionally fathers have been portrayed as uninvolved and leaving the child rearing to the mother. Whether this stereotype of the uninvolved father ever actually existed is debatable. But over the past fifty years (or longer) there has been a continuing rise for greater participation of fathers willingly stepping into the territory of mothers.
Today, and probably in earlier generations there has been no single type of father. Some fathers do indeed remain uninvolved, others are active participants and some fathers, like myself, even raised children by themselves. And yet we have an inbreed expectation that there is one kind of mother. I suppose this is why we, as a society are shocked when a mother carries out a crime against their off spring (for example the case of Shannon Matthews in 2008).
There is also in theory no clear reason why the reorganisation would have any detrimental effect upon the sexes. The preconceived ideas of differentiation of the sexes is rapidly disappearing. But there are no signs yet that relationships are improving especially after relationship breakdowns. On the contrary, such indicators as the rate of divorce suggests that the battle is far from over and that the casualties (the children) are not decreasing. Transformation of equal attitudes and expectations still has a considerable way to go.
So what am I saying?
Like most things in life there is good and bad. There are some good men and equally some bad ones. But this fact must also rest with women. Just because they hold the title of ‘Mother’ does not automatically associate them with a good standard of care of their infants. This theory must also rest with the fact that fathers do indeed want to play an equally important role with their children.
Society expects and demands equality, and this is enforced by the law. And yet, fathers are still forced to appear in court to fight to see their children. Fathers are still stopped access on the whim of a mother who is still assumed to be the better parent.
How are our children going to develop and become good parents themselves when these constraints are still evident? If the equality of parenthood does not change now then our children’s children will still be exposed to outdated philosophies that we have all tried to move away from. In essence, fathers can and are as equally important as mothers, to the same effect that women are equally good at the jobs that our fathers specialised in.